Leonarda Cianciulli, the Soapmaker of Correggio

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The woman who turned the bodies of her victims into soap and teacakes

Born in Montella di Avellino in 1893 and marked by an unhappy childhood, in 1914 Leonarda Cianciulli married Raffaele Pansardi, a clerk in the registry office, and went to live in Lariano in Alta Irpinia.

Emilia Romagna

Nearly everything known about Leonarda Cianciulli is derived from her memoir, titled Confessions of a Bitter Soul, the authenticity of which has been the subject of considerable doubt. Many believe it was actually written by the lawyers who defended her at trial, aiming to mitigate the accused’s position. Considering Cianciulli only had an education up to the third grade, it seems improbable that she could have written a memoir exceeding 700 pages.

Leonarda, the youngest of six children, was born in Montella, a small town in Irpinia, on April 18, 1894, to Mariano Cianciulli, a livestock farmer, and Serafina Marano, a widow with two other children from her previous marriage. According to some sources, her mother, then only fourteen, was forced by her parents to marry a young man, Salvatore Di Nolfi, whom she met during a carriage ride back from the convent school in Florence because he had kidnapped and raped her; the subsequent unwanted pregnancy, from which Leonarda was born, is supported by some sources and contested by others.

As a child, Leonarda suffered from epilepsy. However, the narrative of an unhappy childhood is far from truthful, even though she herself recounted, “I tried to hang myself twice; once they arrived in time to save me, and the other time the rope broke. My mother made it clear she was sorry to see me alive again. Once, I swallowed two stays from her corset, again with the intention of dying, and ate shards of glass: nothing happened.”

The suicide attempts actually occurred later, in the spring of 1941, when she was taken to the judicial prisons of Reggio Emilia.

Related articles: Sa Femina Accabadora, The Lady of the Good Death

Leonarda Cianciulli in March 1946 during an interview with Filippo Saporito (1870-1955) in the criminal asylum of Aversa
Featured image: Leonarda Cianciulli in March 1946 during an interview with the Italian psychiatrist Filippo Saporito (1870-1955) in the criminal asylum of Aversa

Marriage and the Curse

In 1917, at the age of 23, she married Raffaele Pansardi, originally from Lauria in the province of Potenza, then employed at the land registry office of Montella. This was against the wishes of her family, who had chosen another husband for her, also a cousin, as was customary at the time. Cianciulli, in her memoir, recounted being cursed by her mother on the eve of her wedding, leading to a complete estrangement from her: an event that deeply marked the personality of the future murderer. Other sources also mention that the supposed curse and the premature death of 8 of her 12 children profoundly affected Leonarda’s psyche.

According to Cianciulli’s memoir, her mother had cursed her on her deathbed, wishing her a life full of suffering. To make matters worse, years earlier, a gypsy had made a terrible prophecy to her, stating, “You will marry and have children, but all your children will die.” The prediction, as per the memoir, came true: her first 13 pregnancies ended with three miscarriages and ten infants dying in their cradles.

Only after the intervention of a local witch did Leonarda manage to carry through her first and then three more pregnancies. These four children became Leonarda’s most precious possessions, to be defended at all costs. As she wrote in her memoirs, “I could not bear the loss of another child. Almost every night, I dreamt of small white coffins swallowed one after the other by dark soil… that’s why I studied magic, read books on palmistry, astrology, spells, curses, spiritism: I wanted to learn everything about spells to neutralize them.”

Relocation to Correggio

The young couple lived in Lauria from 1921 to 1927, and later in Lacedonia. The 1930 Vulture earthquake prompted the spouses’ move to Correggio, in the province of Reggio Emilia, on the third floor of a house at Corso Cavour 11.

Already in Lauria, as well as in Montella and Lacedonia before, Leonarda Pansardi was known to the villagers as a woman of easy virtue, disgraced, impulsive, rebellious against marital authority, and prone to boastfulness and fraud. Evidence of this includes previous convictions in 1912 (for theft, at the age of 18) and 1919 (for armed threat with a dagger) in Montella, and a 1927 conviction in the Lucanian town; here, Cianciulli was tried and sentenced for continued fraud to ten months and fifteen days in prison, served in the jails of Lauria and Lagonegro, and a fine of 350 lire for having swindled a local peasant woman out of money and valuables worth several thousand lire; her defense attorney’s attempt to plead partial insanity was in vain.

In Emilia, her husband continued to work as a clerk at the Registry Office, with a modest salary of 850 lire per month, barely enough to decently support his wife and children, while also indulging in wine. Cianciulli claimed to have organized to improve the family’s fortunes: benefiting from the compensation awarded to earthquake victims, she started a small but thriving trade in clothes and furniture, in addition to offering “services” in palmistry and astrology.

While in Lauria she had a bad reputation among the townspeople, in Correggio Leonarda was considered at most eccentric, but was well-liked and respected by everyone, seen as a reliable person, an exemplary mother, and an ardent fascist. She welcomed many people into her home, entertaining them with anecdotes and offering sweets she loved to bake; she often received three women, all single and no longer young, dissatisfied with village routine and wishing to start anew elsewhere: seizing on this desire, Leonarda lured them into her trap.

Having been abandoned by her husband, in 1939, at the outbreak of World War II, her only daughter was still attending kindergarten; the two younger sons were one a conscript and the other a high school student, while the eldest, the most beloved, despite being enrolled in Literature at the University of Milan, was at risk of being called to the front. At the mere thought of such a fate for her favorite son, Leonarda, according to her words, fell into despair. Remembering the success of the magical intervention performed years earlier by a witch, Leonarda soon found in magic the solution to her problem, and took the drastic decision to perform human sacrifices in exchange for her son’s life. Indeed, she claimed to the judges who later interrogated her in court that her mother had appeared to her in a dream and had been the one to suggest this “exchange.”


The Murders

The murders took place from 1939 to 1940, and by 1941 rumors began to spread about the disappearance of three women. These rumors gained substance, and, having not heard from her missing sister-in-law (the most famous of the three, Virginia Cacioppo, a former opera soprano) for some time, Mrs. Albertina Fanti officially reported the disappearances to the police commissioner of Reggio Emilia, who assigned Commissioner Serrao to the investigation. Suspicions immediately fell on Cianciulli, who had befriended all three women. Cianciulli dismissed these rumors, threatening to sue for slander and adopting a defiant tone towards the investigators, leading to her arrest.

Cianciulli had carefully chosen three women who were alone, without close relatives, and with substantial savings. However, no one could believe that the wife of a civil servant, 1.50 m tall and weighing 50 kg, could be guilty of triple homicide. The police commissioner of Reggio Emilia, following the trail of a Treasury Bond belonging to Cacioppo presented at the Banco di San Prospero by the priest Adelmo Frattini, summoned the priest who said he had received the bond from Abelardo Spinabelli, a friend of Cianciulli. Spinabelli himself declared he had received it from Cianciulli in settlement of a debt.

Suspicions of criminal association arose due to the involvement of the priest, Spinabelli, Cianciulli, and her son Giuseppe Pansardi, who had repeatedly, under his mother’s orders, sent letters from Piacenza posing as the victim assuring her well-being and had laundered clothes belonging to the victims. However, these suspicions fell through due to the non-involvement of the priest and Spinabelli, leaving Cianciulli and her son as the only suspects. Her son served five years in prison before being released due to insufficient evidence (his mother had exerted all her effort to convince the judges she was the sole culprit).

“I did not kill out of hatred or greed, but solely out of maternal love.”

Cianciulli proved very reticent in front of Commissioner Serrao and revealed details bit by bit: she first claimed to have killed Cacioppo in agreement with Spinarelli, destroyed the body by saponification, and thrown the remains into the Correggio canal, then only after lengthy interrogations did she confess to also having killed the other two victims. Confronted by Police Officer Valli, who asked what had become of the three women, she responded, “Well, I ate my friends, if you want to be eaten too, I’m ready to devour you […], the missing ones, I had eaten them; one roasted, one stewed, one boiled” and added in her memoirs, “If you knew the truth in these words…”

Finally, due to the numerous elements pointing to Cianciulli, the renowned reputation of Cacioppo (whom Cianciulli claimed was in search of a man) and environmental evidence (blood and dentures belonging to the victims found in the soap maker’s house), the woman’s guilt was deemed certain. Cianciulli then confessed to having killed the women, destroyed the bodies by boiling them in a cauldron full of caustic soda heated to 300 degrees, made soap with alum and pitch, disposed of the remains in the cesspit, and preserved the blood to bake it in the oven mixed with milk and chocolate to make biscuits. These were fed to her children, whom she believed she was saving from a mysterious death: Cianciulli saw herself as the goddess Thetis, for just as Thetis sought to make her sons immortal by dipping them in the waters of the River Styx, so too did she want to save her children from death with the blood of her victims. Cianciulli was found guilty of triple homicide, destruction of bodies through saponification, and aggravated theft, sentenced to 15,000 lire, thirty years of imprisonment, and three years to be served first in a psychiatric hospital.

Leonarda Cianciulli
Tools used by Leonarda Cianciulli in her crimes preserved at the Criminological Museum in Rome

The Victims

Ermelinda Faustina Setti The oldest of the victims, the first to end up in Cianciulli’s cauldron, was Faustina Setti, known as “Rabitti.” She was a seventy-year-old woman, semi-literate but incurably romantic, whom Leonarda lured with the promise of finding her a husband in Pola: to avoid envy and gossip, Leonarda also convinced her to tell no one about the news. On December 17, 1939, the day of departure, Faustina went to her friend’s house for final instructions and to have her write a letter to be sent to her friends upon arrival in Pola, as well as to sign a power of attorney to manage her assets. However, the journey was destined never to begin: Leonarda killed the elderly woman with an axe, then dragged her body into a closet and dismembered it into nine parts, collecting the blood in a basin.

As she would later write in her memoir drafted in prison: “I threw the pieces into the pot, added seven kilograms of caustic soda, which I had bought to make soap, and stirred everything until the dissected body dissolved into a dark, viscous sludge with which I filled some buckets and emptied into a nearby cesspit. As for the blood in the basin, I waited for it to coagulate, dried it in the oven, ground it, and mixed it with flour, sugar, chocolate, milk, and eggs, along with a little margarine, kneading everything together. I made a large quantity of crispy pastries and served them to the ladies who came to visit, but Giuseppe and I ate them too.”

Francesca Clementina Soavi The second victim, a kindergarten teacher named Francesca Clementina Soavi, fell into the trap on September 5, 1940, after Leonarda promised her a job at the female college in Piacenza. To divert suspicions as long as possible, Leonarda convinced her to write postcards to her relatives to apologize for her absence and to send them from Correggio, to keep her destination secret until she was sure of securing the position. The script was repeated: after killing her, Leonarda stole the victim’s few savings and, with the permission she had granted before dying, took charge of selling all her belongings and kept the sum earned. Her son Giuseppe went to Piacenza to send the victim’s letters. Leonarda could not yet know, but Francesca had not kept the promise to keep quiet about her imminent transfer: a neighbor had indeed learned of her destination, but did not come forward, and the matter was forgotten, also because the disappearance of a single woman was added to the hundreds of deaths caused by the war every day.

Virginia Cacioppo The third victim was fifty-nine-year-old Virginia Cacioppo, a former soprano of good success. After studying singing at the Milan Conservatory and making her debut in Bizet’s Carmen in July 1904 at the Teatro Municipale in Reggio Emilia, she built a substantial résumé, gaining notoriety and performing in operas by Verdi, Puccini, and Mozart mostly in Italy, Lebanon, and Egypt, even alongside important conductors like Emilio Usiglio.

Leonarda piqued her curiosity by offering her a job in Florence as the secretary of a mysterious theatrical impresario, while simultaneously tantalizing her with the possibility of a future engagement. Again, she begged her victim to tell no one, but once more, the promise was broken: Virginia confided in a friend on the morning of her “departure.” Thus, the poor woman disappeared. Indeed, on November 30, 1940, Cacioppo also ended up in Leonarda Cianciulli’s cauldron, who would later write in her memoir: “She ended up in the cauldron, like the other two […]; but her flesh was fat and white: when it dissolved, I added a bottle of cologne and, after a long boil, got some creamy soaps out of it. I gave them as gifts to neighbors and acquaintances. The sweets were even better: that woman was really sweet.”


Heard in full confession, the trial of Leonarda Cianciulli began on June 12, 1946, in Reggio Emilia, where an interesting point of debate emerged: while the prosecution argued that Leonarda had acted out of sheer greed for her three victims’ money, she stubbornly justified her murders as a blood tribute owed to the memory of her deceased mother, who, she claimed, had appeared to her in a dream threatening to take the lives of her children if she did not shed fresh and innocent blood. Legend has it that, during the trial, Leonarda was secretly taken to the morgue where, with the aid of saws and knives, she managed to dismember a corpse in just twelve minutes.

The expertise of Professor Filippo Saporito, a professor at the University of Rome and director of the criminal asylum in Aversa, was only able to convince the jury of the defendant’s semi-insanity, following the then-popular theories of Cesare Lombroso (while Saporito leaned towards total insanity caused by a hysterical-psychosis). On July 20, 1946, Cianciulli was thus found guilty of three murders, theft of the victims’ properties, and desecration of corpses, and therefore sentenced to at least three years’ confinement in a criminal asylum and thirty years’ imprisonment. The years of the sentence were reduced to twenty-four due to her semi-insanity but were then restored to thirty due to the continuity of the crime; furthermore, the jurisprudence of the time also denied premeditation because it was deemed incompatible with semi-insanity. In effect, Cianciulli entered the asylum and never left.


She died twenty-four years later, on October 15, 1970, in the asylum of Pozzuoli, at the age of 77, from cerebral apoplexy. She was buried in the cemetery of Pozzuoli in a pauper’s grave. At the end of the burial period, in 1975, no one claimed her body, and the remains ended up in the common ossuary of the city’s cemetery. A prison nun remembered her in this way: “Despite the limited means we had, she prepared very tasty sweets, which, however, no inmate ever dared to eat. They believed they contained some magical substance.” The instruments used by Cianciulli to commit the three murders have been preserved since 1949 in Rome in the Criminological Museum.

Topics: Leonarda Cianciulli’s motivations, 1940s Italian crime stories, the truth about the Soap-Maker of Correggio, Leonarda Cianciulli’s trial and verdict, victims of Leonarda Cianciulli

Source www.MuseoCriminologico.it

Last Updated on 2024/03/28


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